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The meaning of Memorial Day

A headline on Matt Drudge’s website this morning claims that most Americans are clueless when it comes to the meaning of Memorial Day.  The late Bernard Wilson, one of the most patriotic individuals I’ve ever known, once told me “the man who killed patriotism in American was George Smathers.”  It was Florida Senator Smathers who introduced the Monday Holiday Bill to Congress in 1971. For more than a century, Memorial Day was celebrated on May 30.  Apparently to Smathers, it was more important to have a 3-day weekend than to recognize a specific date to commemorate a holiday.

Memorial Day was originally named “Decoration Day.”  It was the creation of the GAR – the Grand Army of the Republic, a union veteran’s organization in the aftermath of the American Civil War, still our nation’s most costly war.  “On May 5, 1868, Commander-in-Chief (Major General John A.) Logan, by General Orders No. 11, has assigned May 30, 1868 as a memorial day which is to be devoted to the strewing of flowers on the graves of deceased comrades who died in the defense of their country during the Civil War.”

Because Memorial Day was considered a “Yankee holiday,” it was not accepted in the South for generations.  In fact, veterans of the Confederacy decided to hold their own decoration day, designating April 26, the date when the last major Confederate army surrendered at Bentonville Court House in North Carolina.  Many southern communities refused to recognize the national Memorial Day until 80 years later when World War II united the country.

Mary Jane Smith Pfeil once told me that when she was a grade-schooler in the 1930s, school would dismiss mid-morning each April 26 and the children would march from the old Madison Elementary over to the cemetery at Oak Ridge.  On the west side of the cemetery, they would form up by the 31 unknown Confederate graves and listen to a litany of patriotic speeches and hymns.  She also told me that the speeches were mostly delivered by self-serving politicians and were generally boring to an eight-year-old.  Some things never change.

From the start, Memorial Day was an occasion to remember those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice in the defense of our nation – soldiers who had died during our wars.  Today the strewing of flowers has largely given way to placing small flags in our cemeteries to honor not only those who died during our wars, but all deceased veterans.

However, the basic idea of decorating the graves of the fallen remains intact.  So my Father’s grave at Andersonville National Cemetery, Georgia will be decorated with an American flag even though he did not die until years after his service in World War II. Typically, veterans groups like the American Legion or service organizations like the Boy Scouts, place the flags at each veteran’s grave.

Just to differentiate, Veterans Day which occurs about six months later in the year, is to honor all veterans, living and dead, who have served or are currently serving in our nation’s armed forces.  That holiday was originally named Armistice Day to commemorate the day and hour (11 a.m., November 11, 1918 – 11-11-11) when the “war to end all wars,” later known as World War I, ceased and “all quiet on the western front” was restored.  Subsequent conflicts led to the holiday being renamed Veterans Day.

Over the years, Memorial Day has become more than originally intended.  Traditionally, the great Indianapolis 500 car race is held on the Sunday closest to Memorial Day. Also, Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer.  Picnics and family outings abound, but first and foremost, it is the day we set aside to honor fallen veterans.

It may sound to you like I am splitting hairs to point out the correct meaning of this date, but I believe it is important to be precise in order to understand the meaning and its importance.  After all, if we adults do not understand the true meaning of these holidays, how can we ever expect our children who look to us for example to do any different?

More than one million Americans have died over two centuries in our nation’s wars, beginning with the American Revolution, including nearly seven thousand during the current War on Terror.  History tells us that the number will continue to grow as we encounter threats to our freedom like that represented by Islamic jihadists.  Memorial Day is the date we set aside to honor their sacrifice … and remember.  We owe these heroes more than we can imagine.  We owe them our very freedom.  God Bless America.

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